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Planning commission discussion turns to property owners’ rights

A discussion on a draft of the county’s solar ordinance by the Planning Commission, evolved into a back-and-forth on whether property owners’ rights supersede the county’s jurisdiction over those properties.

The issue came up at the commission’s meeting recently.

One portion of the draft ordinance stated that wooded areas primarily devoted to mature trees in excess of two acres that would require removal of greater than 20% of mature trees unless the planning commission determines greater tree removal would create less impact to the overall project.

“I guess I look at that and say, okay, if I’m just Joe Landowner and I own 50 acres of property, and 30 of it’s wooded, and I want to remove 25 acres of that and clear it and, say, turn it into farm fields. There’s nothing that stops me from doing that right now, I don’t think,” said Joe Reighard, the commission’s chairman.

“Why do we want to put a limit on a landowner, a property owner on how many trees they’re allowed to cut on their own property?” he said. “It seems a little overreaching to me for reasons of the solar ordinance. We’re basically telling a certain industry the trees you’re allowed to cut down. Is there other areas in our zoning that we do that?”

Shannon Rossman, director of planning and community development, pointed out the reasoning behind that restriction was that clear-cutting of trees was not allowed in some of the preservation areas or natural areas because of the damage that could be done.

Rossman cited a case in Clinton County where a 1,500-acre solar project was constructed on an area that had been clear-cut, resulting in questions about whether the county can meet Chesapeake Bay standards with so much land cleared.

“There’s kind of some give and take with water quality and whether not it’s beneficial to the area to have such a large property which was a forested area, whether the benefit outweighs the results. That was some of the reasoning behind that,” she said.

“I just get concerned about property owners’ rights. Us telling someone how many trees they can cut down on their own property. I understand your reasoning … is that in our purview to tell them they can’t cut the trees down for whatever reason they’re cutting them down,” Reighard said.

Another commission member, Larry Allison Jr., weighed in on the discussion.

“I agree with you a hundred percent. I do not like the direction we’re headed with this right now. This is very concerning to me trying to tell people what they can and can’t do on your property especially when you’re a thousand-plus acres. This is a lot of money to these people and a lot of money to our community as well. It could come back into it. I’m really concerned on the direction I’m hearing right now. This is going to have to be slow-walked to make sure we do it right,” Allison said.

Rossman countered that some municipalities have expressed concern that clear-cutting such large areas for the solar industry could have a detrimental effect on tourism and recreation.

“Also they’re very concerned about the change in land use,” she said.

“They said that about cell towers too. Look where we are with those,” Allison replied.

“I just think it should be slow-walked. I don’t want to rush this thing. I think this is going to take some time to figure this out so we don’t make a mistake. Other counties might make mistakes, but we don’t want to,” he added.

Work on the ordinance will take months, Reighard said, as county planning works on revisions and brings them to the commission.

“I would encourage all the planning commission members to take the draft we have now and take a look at it, and we’ll come back next month. I want to hear from others any concerns you have with the ordinance, and I would encourage you to share it with your friends and neighbors and municipalities you live in and get some feedback on it. This is the time to get it right,” he said.

“That’s one of our main jobs at the planning commission is to when these zoning things come up get the zoning that we need in place to protect the county and the residents of the county as well as we can and balance that with property owners’ rights,” he added.

Other issues in the draft ordinance which were discussed pertained to noise management during construction, setbacks and fencing and the use of earthen berms as buffers at the sites.

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